Sunday 10 January 2016

Inis Chlothrann, Lough Ree: Its History and Antiquities

January 10 is the commemoration of Saint Diarmaid of Inis-Clothrann, an island in the midlands lake of Lough Ree. Canon O'Hanlon's account of this saint's life can be found here. Below is an 1899 paper from the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland on this island site and its monastic ruins. The author, F.J. Bigger, is quite an interesting character in his own right. He was a northern Protestant deeply committed to the Irish nationalist cause, and if you open up this site you will see him clad in what the well-dressed Celtic revivalist was wearing back in the day - a kilt and an enormous Tara-style brooch. In the paper below he brings together details of our saint, of the folklore surrounding his island home and a detailed description of the various ruins to be seen there. I have omitted the latter as the original paper has many plans and illustrations necessary to properly follow the text. I cannot easily reproduce all of these here, so have given only a brief description of the various buildings. The island of Inis Clothrann is famed in Irish mythology as the place where the redoutable Queen Maeve of Connacht met her end, and it is to her sister Clorina that the island owes its name. Bigger indulges in some romantic descriptions of druids and of Queen Maeve whom he dubs 'Ireland's Boadicea'. The evidence from John O'Donovan's Ordnance Survey Letters which the article contains is of genuine interest though, I am struck by how the island, having borne the name of the pre-Christian Clorina for centuries, was becoming known as 'Quaker island' in reference to a Quaker who had taken up residence there, and robbed some of the monastic ruins for stones. You will also notice a reference to a distance of 'one English mile', this is because at one time there was a difference in length between an Irish mile and an English one! The paper concludes with a selection of annalistic entries for Inis Clothrann which show that it remained a place of importance for some centuries, especially interesting to me is the reference from 1160 to the scholarly servant of the saints, O'Duinn, who died a holy death in that year.



[Read NOVEMBER 28, 1899.]

ST. DIARMAID, the patron saint of Inis Chlothrann, was of Royal descent, as many of those early saints appear to have been. The "Martyrology of Cashel" states that Diarmaid belonged to the Hy Fiachrach family of Connacht ; his father was Lugna, and he was seventh in descent from Dathy, King of Ireland, who was killed A.D. 427. His mother's name was Edithua (according to others Dediva), also of noble race, and mother of many saints. She was granddaughter to Dubthach Lugair, arch poet, who was received by St. Patrick when he preached before King Leogaire at Tara. St. Diarmaid's day is given as the 10th of January.

St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise was taught by him, which proves the foundation at Inis Chlothrann to have been anterior to the foundation of the now more celebrated ruins of Clonmacnoise, which are so apt to attract all the attention of the visitors to Athlone by the glamour of their great round towers and high crosses, and the unsurpassed abundance of tombstones and Celtic inscriptions.

St. Diarmaid flourished about 540, but the year of his death is not known. Can it be that the little church, it is only 8 feet by 7 that we will describe, was actually built by the saint himself, or was he satisfied with a wattled hut for a sanctuary, similar to the residences of his followers on the surrounding slope ?

Lonely and beautiful was the site he selected, where no sound reached the ear, save the lowing of the herds in the sweet pasture or the splashing waves of the lake upon the shore. Here, where

" The hollow-sounding bittern guards its nest,"

ample time and opportunity were afforded for meditation and prayer.

In the years to come desolation and murder swept over the island, but in our own day there is again peace and silence.

The saint, when he first settled on Clorina's island, fresh with the recollection of Erin's Boadicea and her great prowess and forays in Ireland's heroic period, doubtless proceeded in the usual manner to form a cashel or enclosure around his huts, paying little attention to the Homeric deeds of the warrior queen, who had preceded him in his possessions. He faced his little chapel to the rising sun, devoutly praying as each stone was laid. This was his Beanchor, his centre of life and organisation. His royal descent alone would have assured the success of this enterprise, but he possessed other qualities which fitted him for the work he had undertaken.

The family of Queen Maeva were great enchanters, and the pagan priests or Druids may have held religious sway in Inis Chlothrann before Diarmaid's time ; for there is a reference to a religious settlement on the island before the saint came, and we know that the Church in Celtic lands succeeded the Druids in their possessions, often assimilating customs with an easy transition that fitted in tranquilly with the feelings of the clans. There was little force used in Ireland to suppress the Druids. Many of the Bards and Druids joined the Church, retaining their lands and settlements, preserving their freedom from exaction, performing the continuous duty of blessing the chieftain's enterprises, and cursing his enemies and defamers. However this may have been, Diarmaid's settlement throve and flourished, and after his death became even more famous in the reflected glory of his sanctity. The little church was called after him St. Diarmaid's; for dedications of churches were then unusual they bore, as a rule, the name of their founder.

The Celtic passion for founding churches is very apparent on this island, as it is in so many other places throughout Ireland, where the settlements rivalled each other in this respect, and in the fame of their different schools.

No connected history of the churches can be given save what their stones afford ; but they speak of an active life from the sixth to the fifteenth century. Well-nigh a thousand years saw men of different phases of thought and character worshipping within these walls, joining in the psalms and canticles of the Church, "tilling the stubborn glebe," trying to leave the world a little better than they found it ; until, in the efflux of time, all passed away, and only the ruins of their churches denote their long occupation of this Holy Island.

All the ruins and monuments that were observed are described in detail, beginning at the oldest church, St. Diarmaid's, at the eastern end of the island; then the monastic church, Templemore; then, close by, the Chancel Church; and beside it another small church; after these, the one some distance away to the south, which, we conjecture, may have been the Women' s Church; and lastly, the Clogas, or Belfry Church.

This is one of the diminutive buildings of the early Christians, still retains, in what is left of it, some peculiar features. …It measures 8 feet by 7 feet inside, being thus one of the smallest churches in Ireland. It is duly orientated a few points south of east, thus indicating that its foundation was laid in the last portion of the year. It is apparently the oldest church on the island. Between the walls of this church and Teampul Mor stands a little stone with crosses carved on both sides of it, rudely cut on a natural slab, which must be of an early date. We heard of another stone cross with a head carved upon it, which had been removed to the mainland by a peasant to make a gate block.

Within 12 feet of Teampul Diarmada, to the north, stands Teampul Mor. In point of size and monastic development, this monastery is by far the most important ruin on the island. What is left of it is simple and compact, consisting of a church, to which have been added later domestic buildings, following in the wake of the new orders that the thirteenth century received into Ireland.

In this building we find the first church forming the chancel of a more extended structure, the nave being a subsequent addition. … We should not omit to mention the great Irish yew at the east end, quite overshadowing the whole structure. It is one of the most venerable in Ireland.

This building is a fairly good example of the type of early Christian churches in Ireland, the extreme dimensions of the rectangle being 23 feet 8 inches by 15 feet 8 inches.

This church is situated a short distance to the south of the cluster of churches which we have described, and consists of four walls varying in height from 1 or 2 to 8 or 9 feet. It is entirely devoid of any worked detail. It may have been the Church of Saint Mary or the Church for the Women of the settlement, and entirely devoted to their use the same as is the case on Inismurray, where also the Women's Church stands apart from the group, and is still used as a burial place for the women only. O'Donovan, in the Ordnance Letters, quotes some stories which show that it was believed that no woman who entered one of the churches should survive a year afterwards.

The Teampul Clogas stands isolated and lonely, crowning the highest point of the island. It is remarkable for possessing a square tower at the west end which gives the church its name. On plan the church is rectangular, being 34 feet 8 inches by 16 feet 8 inches. ..This tower, situated on the highest point of the island, was undoubtedly built for a look-out, and may also have been a place of safety for man and property in times of danger.

All the information of value which has been gathered together in the Ordnance Survey letters preserved in the Royal Irish Academy is as follows :

John O'Donovan, writes :

"ATHLONE, August 24th, 1837.

" On Wednesday (23rd) I hired a boat at Cruit, not far to the east of Knockcroghery, and was rowed across to the Quaker's Island to ascertain if I could prove it to be the INIS CLOTHRAN of the Annals, and have succeeded to the utmost satisfaction. The inhabitants of the country on both sides of it always call it Quaker's Island, but the natives of the island itself, who know the Quaker so well, and that it will soon pass out of his hands, never call it Quaker's Island, but INIS CLOTHRAN, Clorina's Island. This Clorina was the sister of the famous Queen Meava, and it is curious that while the former is most vividly remembered on the island, all recollections of the latter have been lost, and have, perhaps, these three centuries back.

" The story about Forby's killing Queen Meava on this island is vividly remembered, and the spot where she was bathing when the stone struck her in the forehead, pointed out with great traditional confidence ; but in this age when reason is beginning to assume a very unusual vigour among the lower classes, it is becoming a matter of doubt whether it was possible in that age to cast with a sling a stone across Lough Ree from Elfeet Castle, in the county of Longford, to the field called Beor-Laighionn (Beorlyon), in Inis Clothran, a distance of one English mile. They are satisfied that a musket would carry a ball and shoot a man dead that distance, but they cannot conceive how any arm (be it ever so muscular) could, with any machine, cast a stone a distance of one English mile.

"The Crann tabhuill may have been some other machine, different from a sling. O' Flaherty only supposes that it was a sling.

"The story is thus told by Keating, and it has been repeated by O' Flaherty and others, but none of them knew the situation of the island or its distance from the land, so that they could not have seen the amount of fable in the story, or whether it contained anything fabulous.

" The following was the cause of the death of Meava of Croghan :

"After Oilioll (the husband of Meava) had been killed by Conall Cearnach, Meava went to reside on Inis Clothran, in Lough Riv, and while there it was enjoined upon her to bathe herself every morning in a well which is in the entrance to the island. When Forbaid, the son of Conquobar (of Ulster), heard of this he came alone one day to visit the well, and measured with a thread the distance from the brink of it to the opposite shore of the lake; and this measurement did he carry with him to Ulster. He then fixed two stakes in the ground at both extremities of the thread, and on the top of one of the stakes he fixed an apple. He then took his Crann Tabhuill, and standing at the other stake, practised shooting at the apple, until he became so expert as to strike the apple at every shot (till he made every shot good, phraseology on the island).

Shortly after this, a meeting took place between the Ultonians and Conacians at both sides of the Shannon, opposite Inis Clothran; and Forbaid went to the east side to the meeting of the Ultonians. One morning, while there, he perceived Meava bathing herself in the well according to her custom, and thereupon lie fixed a stone in his Crann Tabhuill, and making a shot towards her, aimed her directly in the forehead, and killed her on the spot. This happened after she had been eighty-eight years in the government of Connacht."

“Tradition says that this [Clogas] was the first church erected by Saint Diarmid in Inis Clothran, and that the bell in the belfry was so loud-sounding as to be heard at Roscommon, a distance of seven miles. At certain times the monks of this island used to meet those of Roscommon at a river called, from the circumstances, the Banew (Banugad) river, which is as much as to say in English, the River of Salutation.

" A belief existed not many years since on this island that no woman could enter Templemurry or Lady's church without dying within the circle of twelve months after entering it, but a certain heroine a second Meava in courage put an end for ever to the superstition by entering the church and living to a goodly old age afterwards.

"St. Diarmid is said to have blessed all the islands in this lough except one, which is for that reason called Inis Diarmaid Diamrid, and in English ‘The Forgotten Island.'

" Your obedient servant,


719. St. Sionach of Inis Chlothrann died on the 20th day of April.
780. Eochaidh, the son of Eocartach, Abbot of Eochladha, and of Inis Chlothrann, died.
769. Curoi, the son of Alniadh. Abbot and Sage of Inis Chlothrann, and of Caill Eochladha in Meath, died.
1010. The men of Munster plundered Inis Chlothrann and Inis Bo-finne.
1050. Inis Chlothrann was plundered.
1087. The fleet of the men of Munster, with Mortogh O'Brien, sailed on the Shannon to Lough Ribh, and plundered the islands of the lake, viz., Inis Chlothrann, Inis Bo-finne, Inis Ainggin, and Cluain Emain, which Rory O'Conor, King of Connacht, seeing, he caused to be stopped the fords on the Shannon, called Aidircheach and Rechraith, to the end that they might not be at liberty to pass the said passages on their return, and were driven to return to Athlone, where they were overtaken by Donnel MacElynn O'Melaghlin, King of Meath, to whose protection they wholly committed themselves, and yielded all their cots, ships, and boats to be disposed of at his pleasure, which he received, and sent safe conduct with them until they were left at their native place of Munster.
1136. Hugh O'Einn, the Bishop of Breifny, died in Inis Chlothrann.
1141. Gilla na-naomh O'Ferral, chief of the people of Annaly, the most prosperous man (Fer Ardrait) in Ireland, died at a great age, and was buried in Inis Chlothrann.
1150. Morogh, the son of Gilla na-naomh O'Eergal, the tower of splendour and nobility of the East of Connacht, died in Inis Chlothrann.
1160. Giolla na-naomh O'Duinn, Lecturer of Inis Chlothrann, Professor of History and Poetry, and a well-spoken eloquent man, sent his spirit to his Supreme Father amidst a choir of angels, on the 17th day of December in the 58th year of his age. *
1167. Kinneth O'Ketternaigh, Priest of Inis Chlothrann, died.
1168. Dubhchobhlach, the daughter of O'Quinn, wife of Mac Corgamna, died after obtaining unction and contrition, and was interred in Inis Chlothrann.
1170. Dermot O'Braoin, Coarb of Comman, was chief senior of the east of Connacht, died in Inis Chlothrann in the ninety-fifth year of his age.
1174. Rory O'Carroll, Lord of Ely, was slain in the middle of Inis Chlothrann.
1189. It was at Inis Chlothrann on Lough Ree that the hostages of O'Conor Maonraoy were kept at that time.
1193. Inis Chlothrann was plundered by the sons of Costalloe and by the sons of Conor Moinmoy.
1232. Tiapraide O'Breen, Coarb of Saint Coman, an ecclesiastic learned in History and Law, died on his pilgrimage on the island of Inis Chlothrann.
1244. Donogh, the son of Einghin, who was son of Maelseachlainn, who was son of Hugh, who was son of Torlogh O'Conor, Bishop of Elphin, died on 23rd of April on Inis Chlothrann, and was interred in the monastery of Boyle.
*"AN. 1160. Saint Gilda, who (is also called) Nehemias, Ua Duinn, Scholar or principal of the schools of Inis Chlothrann, an excellent Antiquarian, very famous in poetry and eloquence, emigrating to his paternal right (country), sent forth his spirit among choirs of angels on the 17th of December, in the year of his age 130."

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